Nurturing New Plays At the Seattle Rep

For this producer of hits like the '89 Pulitzer and Tony-winning `Heidi Chronicles,' a `good acting company' is the true aim. ARTS IN SEATTLE: THEATER

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AN abstract sculpture in red neon lights hangs on the post-modern fa,cade of the Bagley Wright Theatre here, just down the street from Seattle's landmark Space Needle. Unfortunately, there's no time to stop and gaze at the luminous curls and twists. It's only a minute or two until the opening curtain for ``Truffles in the Soup,'' and it would be bad form for a visiting reporter to miss the first act.

Settling into a plush seat, I'm struck by the handsome stage set, re-creating a street from New York City's ``Little Italy'' - the locale for a contemporary farce, which borrows its social conscience, down-and-out street characters, and mistaken identities from an 18th-century Italian comedy.

This richly detailed scene is truly extraordinary. Even if this year's Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for best play hadn't been given to a drama first produced on this stage - Wendy Wasserstein's ``The Heidi Chronicles'' - the scenery alone would signal that the dramatic arts get special nurturing here at the home of the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

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The Rep and its artistic director, Daniel Sullivan, are ``unparalleled in the care and feeding of new plays,'' playwright Herb Gardner noted at a luncheon a couple days after the ``Truffles'' performance. Mr. Gardner's ``I'm Not Rappaport'' was developed and premi`ered here before moving on to New York and winning the 1986 Tony for best drama. According to Gardner, the play might never have been produced at all without the Rep's interest and help.

Wendy Wasserstein, too, praised Mr. Sullivan and the Rep in her Tony acceptance speech last week for the year of effort the company put into her play.

But surprisingly, artistic director Sullivan says the crafting of Broadway hits is not the Rep's mission. In a conversation in his spacious office, the director, who came to this city 10 years ago from Lincoln Center, explained, ``I keep stressing that the nonprofit regional theaters were inaugurated as an alternative to the commercial theater. They were an attempt to provide communities like ours with good professional theater. ... Our primary focus is the development of a good acting company.''

The local community has warmly embraced the 26-year-old Rep. About 80 percent of the tickets, representing some 23,000 seats, are snapped up by season subscribers. Yet ticket sales pay only 62 percent of the company's costs. Gifts, grants, and other income make up the difference. So when a Rep play transfers to Broadway, can't the added revenue chip away at the company deficit?

``With `The Heidi Chronicles,' the theater participates in the profits only through my directorial royalties,'' Sullivan explains. ``With `Eastern Standard' [another play on Broadway that was developed at the Rep], there was a contract that allowed the theater to participate to some degree through box office revenues. But it's a very small amount of money unless the play is an enormous success. The standard for most theaters is one-half of 1 percent of the gross and a small percentage of the profits.

``We don't look to it as a reliable means of revenue. We're a nonprofit organization, meaning that we raise a good deal of money from public and private sources. If the public and private sources get the idea that we can raise our own money through successes of that kind, we are in trouble. That's strictly a seasonal thing. It can happen one year, and if it doesn't happen the next, you're wiped out.''

According to Sullivan, success in the commercial theater presents artistic as well as financial challenges. ``Part of the attraction for playwrights to bring a play here was that we were out of the limelight...,'' he explains. ``Now, when we decide to do a workshop, that decision appears in the New York Times. The playwright comes out here because of the need for privacy, and the privacy is interrupted. The attention is good, but it's also somewhat dangerous for the theater.''

``Truffles in the Soup'' was written by Sullivan and the company because they wanted an original work to end the '88-89 season. It is based loosely on Carlo Goldoni's ``The Servant of Two Masters.'' Sullivan wrote the first act with the strengths of the 14-performer company in mind. ``We slammed the second act together as we went,'' he says.

The result is a play with the wit, topical references, playful digs at audiences, and implausible plot twists that will please any fan of farce. The action revolves around Truffles, a dropout from the Yale Drama School who is now a homeless street person and who insists there's a theater audience where everyone else sees only a parking lot. But never mind; Truffles's immediate goal in life is to find a meal.

Describing his inspiration for the script, Sullivan recalls, ``I was walking down a street in New York, and there was a street person who was a talker. He sounded absolutely reasonable, but he was just talking to nobody. I thought: What if I were crazy and his reality were true?

``I wanted it to be funny,'' continues Sullivan, ``but I also wanted to deal with the fact that so many homeless people on New York streets are there because they've been turned out of mental hospitals. As in most other comedies, the components of the play are possibly very grim. The whole play is propelled by the audience's understanding of this man's hunger - by believing in it just as firmly as they believe in Chaplin's hunger in `The Gold Rush,' where he eats a shoe.''

Truffles comes poignantly close to dining while in the employ of both a young woman named Beatrice, who disguises herself as her deceased brother in order to collect a debt owed to him, and a young tough named Angelo, Beatrice's forsaken and forlorn lover, who for a time believes she is dead.

The subplot involves Benito Pataloni, who hopes to avoid paying the debt to Beatrice while dissuading his own daughter from marrying an unworthy suitor and his wife from pursuing practically every character who wears pants (including the disguised Beatrice). There's also a restaurateur who stocks his larder from a garbage can and a warmhearted bag lady who belts out London music hall ditties.

Though the Rep adaptation blunts some of the social commentary Goldini aimed at the callousness of the upper classes, the audience does feel for Truffles and the way their own selfish pursuits keep others from responding to his plight.

John Procaccino is perfect in the title role, using superb comic timing and skillfully inflected asides to capture Truffles's wavering hope and frustration. Jeannie Carson delivers a strong performance as the sometimes sympathetic bag lady, and Barbara Dirickson relishes the various challenges of playing a woman who impersonates a man. Fine ensemble acting from the rest of the cast, and an impromptu performance from an unsuspecting member of the audience keep the evening moving at an antic pace. Douglas W. Schmidt designed the effective set, Pat Collins the realistic lighting, and Ann Hould-Ward the flamboyant costumes.

Sullivan, who directed, considers the work done so far with ``Truffles'' to be ``just kind of a first step. More important than that audiences enjoy it is that we've taken this step of working together as a company. We've gotten to know each other a little better.''

At the Rep, developing the relationships that oil the pursuit of exceptional artistry at every level is what it's all about.

The Rep will take ``Truffles'' to San Diego to open the Old Globe Theatre's 1990 season.

Dramatic growth in Seattle's cultural scene prompted the Monitor to send arts editor Bruce Manuel there to sample the city's arts organizations. This is the first of several reports from that trip.

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